Author Archives: Necropraxis

The Worm Ouroboros

The Worm Ouroboros is a proto-fantasy (the in the genre sense) novel by E. R. Eddison, originally published in 1922. It is an amalgam of mythological traditions, Greco-Roman epic poetry, and invented fantasy worlds. A historian of fantasy literature could probably draw a line of influence that ran from Dunsany, through Eddison, and to Tolkien. I am not going to talk much more about the story here, though if you are curious Patrick wrote a lengthy post over at False Machine that is worth a read.

The pacing and characterization are occasionally rough going for someone used to contemporary fantasy novels, or even contemporary novels of any kind, but the overall effect is something like if Homer wrote an adventure epic in the early 20th century adventure novel vernacular based on the fever dreams of a five year old.

The real point of this post though is to spotlight a recently released edition of this book by Easton Press, one of the publisher’s 2021 “Reader’s Choice” titles. I do not usually care for the Easton Press house style, which involves aggressively conventional leather binding, extensive gilding, and overly literal cover designs. In this case, however, the style fits the title reasonably well, and Easton Press does at least put out durable products (real leather, stitched bindings, acid-free paper, and so forth). The interior is a facsimile of an earlier (perhaps the first) edition, and includes all the original illustrations by Keith Henderson, which, as black and white line art, also come out tolerably well in reproduction. Given the strangeness of the story, this might end up being the only game in town for someone that wants a more substantial edition. I lack much experience buying from Easton Press directly (this is actually the only book from them I own at the moment), but my understanding is that the Reader’s Choice titles are only available for some unspecified but limited period, and then rarely reprinted.

A Wilderness of Building

frus·trat·ed fan·ta·sy nov·el·ist, n. A caricature of a tabletop roleplaying referee who has developed a complex imaginary world, or particular plot, and would really much rather show players around or tell a predetermined story than play a game.

From Piranesi’s Carceri d’Invenzione

The frustrated fantasy novelist approach has rarely, if ever, tempted me. Perhaps, though, there is another loosely related set of motivations that might apply to some degree: frustrated fantasy architect. By architect, I mean specifically a planner of built spaces. I find few things as compelling as exploring, or watching players explore, the remains of a vast buried city, or derelict spacecraft, or lightless underworld. This thought occurred to me many times as I was listening to Susanna Clarke’s 2020 novel Piranesi. Though the setting for the novel is primarily a stage upon which to present the protagonist’s experience rather than an unknown expanse to explore in a cartographic sense, the end result brings to mind the mysterious otherness of the best tabletop roleplaying game dungeons.

I will avoid talking much about the plot, both because part of the pleasure in the story is gradually realizing the nature of the situation along with the protagonist and because I want to focus more on the evocation of imagined space. What drew me in was the limited viewpoint that grows to slowly encompass greater realization, and the sense of destabilization and shifting beliefs that accompany the expansion of knowledge. The story begins in a labyrinth, which is also the world; it is a tangle of architecture, tides, and uncountable statues; an endless expanse of halls. If you have seen etchings by the historical Giovanni Battista Piranesi, the Venetian artist, you probably already have some approximate image of this space in your mind. The Piranesi of Clarke’s story knows of 15 people, and for Piranesi the labyrinth is the whole of existence.

From Piranesi’s Carceri d’Invenzione

In a roleplaying game, satisfying architectural exploration for me requires some degree of concreteness and detail, akin to procession through a region in Dark Souls or a creatively designed stage for a first person shooter. Different areas must relate with a strict spatial logic. Though this logic need not by conventional or Cartesian, it must involve more structure than a narrative sequence. As a tangential point, practical architecture that is suitable for use in the prosaic world is too repetitious, predictable, and symmetrical to be ideal for exploring as a dungeon. The most effective and interesting dungeon spaces are like expressionistic recasting of identifiable architectures. The labyrinth in this story is too abstractly depicted to be a good example of a roleplaying game dungeon, being loosely sketched to evoke the feeling tone of the story protagonist. Though Piranesi often mentions specific halls by name, and describes distinctive features in detail, the spaces are floating vignettes that emerge and fade away to support scenes rather than spaces of complex relation. I intend this not as negative judgment, since the depiction works well in the context of the story, but instead to make it clear how the story communicates the feel of a dungeon-like space without taking the audience through a process of exploration.

The story was not what I was expecting, though afterwards I can see similarities to Clarke’s other work. Though much shorter than her more well-known novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004), Piranesi still reaches a length that I think most people would say “counts as a novel” (a web search tells me 272 pages). Despite this, it feels like a short story, and I mean this in the best possible way; the story is tightly crafted, with few extraneous events or digressions when seen as a whole, and though the pacing is languid on the surface, I found the story to be enthralling, even riveting. It is without question one of my favorite novels published somewhat recently (recently in the historical sense; say, after the year 2000). Despite that acclamation, Piranesi is a concept album of a book, and while Clarke avoids ostentatious experimental literary technique, the approach is still something other than conventional third person realism. I could see how this might lead some people to come away feeling like the book is somewhat contrived or affected, but the approach landed for me.

From Piranesi’s Carceri d’Invenzione

The version to which I listened, from Audible, was read by Chiwetel Ejiofor. It may be the best audiobook performance I have come across, and I have listened to quite a few audiobooks since covid began. (Also, one of my parents worked in audiobook publishing for a stretch, so I heard many when I was younger. Even considering all of those, and with the caveat that it has been a while, this may still be the best reading I have heard.) The publisher has made available an excerpt you can listen to on YouTube. Chiwetel reads slowly, very clearly, in a way that perfectly captures Piranesi’s curious demeanor but also his fundamentally strange and alien beliefs about the nature of reality. Unfortunately, I see only a few other audiobook performances by him, but at least one of them is an audio dramatization of Othello (along with several other performers), which I am now anticipating.

I conclude with a brief nested quotation. What follows is Thomas De Quincey quoting a section from book two of Wordsworth’s poem The Excursion. Before this quoted section, De Quincey described (with considerable creative license) Coleridge recalling a plate from Piranesi’s Carceri d’Invenzione.

With the same power of endless growth and self-reproduction did my architecture proceed in dreams. In the early stage of my malady, the splendours of my dreams were indeed chiefly architectural: and I beheld such pomp of cities and palaces as was never yet beheld by the waking eye, unless in the clouds. From a great modern poet I cite part of a passage which describes, as an appearance actually beheld in the clouds, what in many of its circumstances I saw frequently in sleep:

The Appearance, instantaneously disclosed,
Was of a mighty City—boldly say
A wilderness of building, sinking far
And self-withdrawn into a wondrous depth,
Far sinking into splendor—without end!
Fabric it seemed of diamond and of gold,
With alabaster domes, and silver spires;
And blazing terrace upon terrace high
Uplifted; here, serene pavilions bright,
In avenues disposed; there, towers begirt
With battlements that on their restless fronts
Bore stars—illumination of all gems!
By earthly nature had the effect been wrought
Upon the dark materials of the storm
Now pacified; on them, and on the coves
And mountain-steeps and summits, whereunto
The vapours had receded, taking there
Their station under a cerulean sky., &c. &c.


De Quincey (1986). Confessions of an English opium eater. Penguin Classics. (Original work published 1822)
Piranesi (1761). Carceri d’invenzione. Rome.
Wordsworth (1814). The Excursion. Simpkin, Marshall, and Co.

You Died

You Died is a book about Dark Souls, written by a pair of game journalists. It was first published as a simple paperback and then reimagined as a deluxe hardcover funded by a Kickstarter campaign. The book is printed offset in Italy on 140gsm Magno Natural uncoated paper and plentifully illustrated. In keeping with the profession of the authors, many of the chapters have a journalistic flavor, describing the origin of Dark Souls and vignettes about its reception, often via experiences reporting about the game. However, the book also includes thoughtful chapters on game design, player motivation, and creative influences. The chapters alternate through essays, brief discussions of locations within the game, and there is a brief appendix discussing the setting and important characters. This book was clearly a labor of love, attested by the attention paid to sturdy construction, the careful design, and the reverential art direction. I think it should be obvious that the text itself will contain many spoilers, but I think I have kept this post free of spoilers.

Let’s get the discussion of weaknesses out of the way. While the binding and cover are excellent, the black inks could have greater depth, and this is especially noticeable on the pages with white text on black background. In keeping with the celebratory aspect of the work, occasionally the prose shifts into a sentimental register noticeable even to me as a fan of the game. Jason also has a penchant for punchy wordplay, which I suspect works slightly better in short form web writing compared to a longer text (sample chapter titles: You’ve Got Chainmail, Knight & Subscribe). Along similar lines, while the layout is excellent in general, there are a few flourishes that would be more at home in a magazine or web site, such as the occasional pull quote. Honestly though, taken in perspective, these are all minor issues. The book as a whole is an impressive accomplishment; as a physical artifact, as a thoughtful discussion of game design, and as a consideration of the play culture around Dark Souls.

I enjoyed all the chapters, even the human interest features which tell stories about the importance of Dark Souls to various individuals, but my favorite parts were the interviews with Hidetaka Miyazaki, the game’s director, whose words are rubricated within the text. Just about everything Miyazaki says is revealing or insightful in some way, but I will highlight two quotes as examples. The first is about respecting the accomplishments of players, even those that might be considered exploits:

During lunch with Hidetaka Miyazaki in London in April 2012, I asked him if his team had designed that … spot especially for grinding. He assured me they hadn’t, but since players had discovered on their own how to manipulate it for their gain, he didn’t want to patch the AI behaviour and steal away something that now belonged to the community.

You Died, p. 60

The second is about the interplay between exploration and ambiguity in design:

This philosophy of ambiguity derives from Miyazaki’s teen years reading fantasy novels in English. He had a particular fondness for the Fighting Fantasy series, written by UK game-industry pioneers Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. Because of the language barrier, much of these stories remained mysterious to him: he was left to fill in the blanks with his own imagination.

You Died, p. 311

Considering 1974 D&D, there is a case to be made that slightly incomplete rules prompt (or demand) some degree of customization or finishing on the part of the referee. While this might be a flaw for some purposes, it also creates a degree of investment and uniqueness in the realized game. There is also the more general idea that a void can be fruitful. The ambiguity and obscurity of what is ultimately going on in Dark Souls works similarly, creating both curiosity about the details scattered throughout the game (encouraging exploration) while also creating a space for the player’s own idiosyncratic interpretation, given weight and shape by extensive mythological symbolism.

The illustrations are a mix of digital pieces, which I think might be processed photos of actual gameplay, small sketches placed at chapter headings, and whimsical line drawings skillfully caricaturing various experiences of gameplay that will immediately be recognizable to longtime players. These small line drawings especially work to soften the seriousness of the text both in terms of the bleak themes running through Dark Souls the game and the risk of pomposity inherent in giving a book of game journalism such fancy clothes. This is in keeping with the tone of Dark Souls itself, which breaks the somberness with occasional levity. The book is adorned with religious imagery, such as the blind stamped cathedral window cover motif and the title lettering in the form of a cross, not to mention the aforementioned rubrication. The book looks and feels like a psalter from the outside given the cover design, ribbon marker, and gilt page edges. It is no exaggeration to say that obsession runs through the project and text. I know, because I recognize aspects of my own interest reflected back to me. But, like the caricatures throughout, the text is self-aware, and pays respect to the game without taking itself too seriously, most of the time.

As noted above, the book does contain some spoilers, including a few details I have missed in my own playing so far, and some of these made me curious about the online play component, which I have so far totally avoided, being primarily interested in exploring the worlds of Dark Souls on my own terms and through the interfaces the game provides. In a similar vein, apart from occasionally browsing Fashion Souls, and reading a handful of guides about what stats to level or how weapon upgrades work, my primary social engagement about Dark Souls has been limited to discussions with a small coven of Google Plus exiles that I met playing old school D&D and related hacks. Now I am more curious about some of the other culture and cottage industry that has accreted around the game, such as VaatiVidya’s YouTube videos interpreting the morsels of setting detail or the “Kay Plays” of Dark Souls, which chronicles the journey of a novice through the game.

Though I suspect the writing would be engaging for someone who is interested in video games or game design more generally but has minimal experience with Dark Souls, some of the references are obscure and others might seem trivial without the echoes of personal game experiences. You Died is first and foremost a scripture for those initiated in the tribe. Praise the sun! Or the dark, as per appropriate allegiances.

I will close with some additional details for fellow book nerds. When I emailed Jason to ask a few questions about the book’s construction (yes, the binding is stitched), along with answering my questions he sent back links to several videos of the production process:

And here is a photo of the red letter treatment:


More About the Publisher


Purchase Info

  • Order Date: 2020-12-16
  • Price: $127.00 CAD + $31.56 CAD shipping = $158.56 CAD total (approximately $125 USD including shipping)
  • Details: You Died deluxe hardcover (note: I think I ordered the cloth-bound edition but it looks like I received the Skivertex simulated leather edition, which would be a small upgrade)

See here for my approach to reviews and why I share this purchase info.

Gallery

Chronological Vampires

Interview with the Vampire, p. 226 (1976)

One of my pseudo-quarantine entertainments has been to read or reread most of the vampire stories I have on hand. So far, this has included I Am Legend, Interview with the Vampire, and Let the Right One In, with Dracula waiting in the wings. Along with providing an effective symbolic or allegorical nemesis, the vampire story seems particularly well suited to tell a story with extended historical sweep. To my surprise, when I went looking for examples of vampire stories that take this approach, Interview with the Vampire (along with Rice’s other work in this fictional continuity) was the only obvious example, though Interview goes all in, with a narrative that spans several hundred years and themes of change and adaptation.

I brought this up elsewhere, and someone mentioned the “Anno Dracula” collection of novels by Kim Newman, which is set in an alternative history where the events depicted in Stoker’s Dracula occur, but imagines what might happen were Dracula victorious. Though this series does include entries that occur in various historical time periods, the stories themselves seem to be more like a collection of separate historical vignettes (based on a quick wikipedia dive). For example, it looks like there is a Jack the Ripper story and a modern Japanese schoolgirl story. I have heard some of these works are enjoyable, so this is not meant as a criticism, but they seem to have a focus different from what I describe above.

There are several tabletop games that use vampires as protagonists which feature the longue durée as a core design element, none of which I have played. (I have played Vampire: The Masquerade, a long time ago, but that is very much histoire événementielle if it has any particular temporal disposition.) There is Undying, by Paul Riddle, which applies the Apocalypse World design formula to vampires. I read this a while back but have yet to see it in play. This is how the game describes itself:

Game play revolves around brief periods of intense conflict, where old rivalries and new slights spark an inferno, and long stretches of intrigue, where intricate plots are set in motion. … Then, the long years unfold and selfish aims ferment. Plotting and scheming over long periods of relative calm are summarized so that the narrative focuses on decisive events across the gulf of time.

Undying, p. 12 (2016)

There is also Thousand Year Old Vampire, which I have not read or played. This is a single-player journaling game, however, and I am mostly uninterested in solo tabletop play.

Though I am moderately-read in this area, I am hardly a connoisseur. It is likely I am missing some good examples of vampire stories that make use of historical narrative sweep. Does anyone have any recommendations for other hidden gems? In terms of style, I am more interested in works with kinship to the novels I mention above and less interested in urban fantasy or supernatural drama. So, more like Let the Right One In or Only Lovers Left Alive and less like True Blood or The Vampire Diaries.

Muster

Eero Tuovinen is crowd-funding a discussion about old school play: Muster: A Friendly Primer to Challengeful DungeoneeringWhy, you might ask, is another primer useful, given the existence of Finch’s Old School Primer, Principia Apocrypha, and various fragmentary discourses scattered across the blogosphere? Well, Eero comes at this project from a slightly different perspective, probably, from most readers of this blog. Most obviously, he prioritizes focused design over general toolboxes, though he has a long history thinking about the older style of tabletop fantasy roleplaying games (exhibit 1). While focused design is relevant to how he thinks about game design broadly, for this particular project, I would also draw your attention to the idea of wargaming around which he positions the project.

“Wargamey” is only one of five principles, the other four being challenge-focused, egalitarian, creative, and authentic. I, personally, am particularly interested to see what implications he works out from the last of these principles, given my somewhat ambivalent take on genre in tabletop roleplaying games:

authentic rather than ritualistic; the grand purpose of a D&D campaign is to game out the implications of the campaign set-up rather than replicate the GM’s expectations of what D&D adventuring is “supposed to be”. We discover the truth via play.

If you are curious about his previous work or style, you can check out his occasional blogging, including an outline presentation of the planned booklet.

(As a side note, I briefly played in a few early sessions of the online Greyhawk campaign he mentions, though scheduling and other obligations got in the way of extended participation.)

One final point that I think makes this project worth supporting: part of the goal is open community access:

An essential vision for this project is that Muster will be a free, probably Creative Commons licensed booklet that anybody can pick up off the ‘net and do whatever with.

There is about a week left in the campaign, and he is only a few hundred dollars away from the funding goal at the time of posting, so this is a project where a few more backers might actually make a difference to viability. Check it out.

Unwanted Undead Adventurer

I follow a few ongoing manga series on Comixology—Delicious in Dungeon, Made in Abyss, Goblin Slayer. Ubel Blatt, though that is finished and I am way behind. Berserk, though that comes out so infrequently it is hard to think about as following. As you can probably see, I have a type: occidentalist fantasy, often influenced (perhaps self-consciously) by tabletop roleplaying tropes. Last time I signed in, I noticed this new series in my recommendations—The Undead Unwanted Adventurer—and it seemed to hit a number of those notes so I decided to give it a try. As it turns out, it is something like lighthearted Dark Souls pseudo fan fic, which has the potential to be, ahem, exactly my sort of thing. In terms of common manga genres: shounen isekai, leaning seinen, with a bit of harem going on, though though the isekai aspect is a rebirth rather than a transportation. (This post mostly avoids plot spoilers, apart from the initial event alluded to in the manga title, but it does contain some minor setting spoilers. Also, for the panel excerpts, keep in mind you should read from right to left.)

First, let’s get the judgments out of the way. This is a smaller-scale, more niche offering than some of the other series listed above. Nakasone’s art is pleasant enough, but lacks the precision and emotion of Miura’s work on Berserk, the richness and complexity of Nihei’s work on Blame!, or the saturated lightness of Tsukushi’s work on Made in Abyss. Comparisons with such accomplished artists may be unfair, but I want to set expectations. Further, the best art in The Undead Unwanted Adventurer is probably in the fan service panels—more on that below. The writing, as well, is good enough to get the story across, but otherwise unremarkable. The story began as a light novel in Japan, before spawning a manga manifestation, and the light novel medium is comparable in some ways with “young adult” fiction in the Western market. So, what we are left with is a story that will rise and fall based on the world building and manipulation of genre touchstones, and how it rewards or surprises reader expectations. Overall, the series kept me curious and entertained enough to plow through the three available volumes in a matter of days.

A common aspect of this subgenre is in-world justification or representation of RPG game elements. This can be crude—such as the magical HUD that characters consult in Rise of the Shield Hero—or clever—such as the “adventure sheet” adventurer guild registration form in Goblin Slayer. When done well, such aspects can suggest ways to connect game elements to setting elements. There is a kind of appreciation seeing in-setting explanations for something like a the Monster Manual hierarchy of undead, or similar game artifacts. Undead Adventurer has a lot of this, including different kinds of “mana” (roughly corresponding to character classes), adventurer guild ranking with exams, mega-dungeon exploration serving almost as borderlands industry, and so forth.

About the harem thing. Our protagonist is a largely misunderstood and unappreciated loner who, throughout the course of adventures, accumulates a number of mostly female sidekicks. Our hero has the opportunity to save or otherwise assist these supporting characters, who come to appreciate his quirks and become fiercely loyal. Sound familiar? (I am somewhat surprised that I was unable to find an overly specific subgenre term for this dynamic given how common it is, but here we are.) This sort of escapism can range from playful wish-fulfillment to bitter resentment, and Unwanted Undead Adventurer lands firmly in the range of playful for me, though it occasionally deserves some eye-roll.

One of the most enjoyable qualities of occidentalist manga in this vein, for me at least, is seeing the common tropes generally taken seriously rather than constantly subverted, but also filtered through the lens of another culture, or idiosyncrasies of a particular creator, which lends novelty and the occasional (but regular) instance of surprising, substantial deviations from common expectations. For example, orcs in the world of the Undead Adventurer are brutish, pig-faced humanoids—that all seem to be terrifying giants, hunted because the flesh of orcs is particularly savory. Recognizable, but warped, and somewhat ghoulish. Perhaps this is a way to approximate the New Sincerity turn, but in genre fantasy, for those of us that grow bored of constant genre irony and deconstruction?

(Panels excerpted here are an assortment from volumes 1 through 3.)

Missing Manuals

Every once in a while, but with some regularity, someone will ask for module recommendations, often as a way to get into old school or classic play. I am somewhat conflicted regarding the best response to such requests because, while there is nothing fundamentally wrong with modules, and they have some particular utility, modules are also limiting, often have poor handling, and are poor examples of the form’s potential.

My inclination is to instead suggest that referees, even new referees, create a simple custom scenario. This is unnecessarily intimidating, partly due to some unfortunate ingrained assumptions, including seemingly upward comparison to professional offerings with illustrations, cartography, edited prose, and so forth. In reality, crafting a satisfying classic scenario is often less complicated than the process of building a player character in a contemporary system, but has become obscured by a shroud of world building complexity and the detritus of expectations related to literary story structure. There are a few examples of procedures that a referee can follow to create a scenario, such as Moldvay’s double spread in 1981 Basic D&D (pp. B51-B54) which explains how to create an adventure. The recent Old School Essentials SRD provides similar information, available for free online (adventure scenarios, designing a dungeon, designing a wilderness). Other resources exist as well, though often buried in other materials.

These resource are useful, but still often seem to be pitched at the wrong level, lacking sufficiently concrete set of recommended actions, or attached to bland thematic content. As an example of the kind of referee rules that I think would be an antidote to module recommendations, I want to highlight two recent blog posts about crafting megadungeons:

The Two Week post in particular is a practical and clear example, though perhaps still slightly intimidating for a starting referee. Unfortunately, the trappings of a megadungeon is probably mildly counterproductive, despite the likely truth that following Nick’s megadungeon building guidelines would probably be easier and more enjoyable than skimming B2, or just about any published module scenario. (In reality, the observant and experienced reader will also note that a megadungeon is really just a series of linked scenarios that happen to be subterranean.)

If you are aware of any other similar scenario building procedures worth highlighting, drop them in the comments. Procedural rules rather than something like a collection of tables would be most useful. I am sure I am neglecting some other good resources. This is also a call for what to include in a game’s referee book or section.

Waltz of Souls

Dark Souls encodes a number of fundamental play dynamics that produce a particular kind of satisfying play. In this post, I am going to discuss a way the game supports and rewards an enterprising but focused player stance toward the unknown.

First, the game penalizes both reckless and overly cautious play. A player of even a relatively high level character can still be messed up substantially by some of the weakest and simplest enemies if the player fails to pay attention and take the threat seriously. In contrast, a player that is too cautious will always be on the back foot, and less able to take advantage of opponent weaknesses. In this way, courage in the face of danger and a spirit of enterprise serve the player best for developing their own skill, improving their fictional avatar, and deepening the complexity of the imagined world. In short, the game entices player engagement and rewards persistence in the face of failure (amplified by many other design decision that are beyond the scope of this post), rather than providing participation trophies for just showing up or presenting a passive media entertainment experience. (Post continues after 80 second video fighting an Old Knight in Dark Souls 2.)

Knife fighting with an Old Knight

Second, this reward and penalty structure creates a cybernetic feedback loop. Feedback loops are powerful, but can also topple into degenerate cases. The most engaging forms of feedback loop for gameplay involve adaptation rather than return to static equilibria. The system improves itself. If a feedback loop reaches a static equilibrium, the “game” ends, even if the players continue to engage due to habituation (perhaps analogous to how a thermostat maintains static conditions). If the feedback loop is negative, at some point the game ends because the activity as pattern destroys itself (similar to how a democracy can collapse into tyranny, a market bubble can pop, or a virus can burn itself out by killing all the hosts). In an adaptive feedback loop, each iteration of feedback produces a more complex, satisfying, resilient whole.

The play iterations of a tabletop roleplaying game can manifest similar dynamics. In one example of a degenerate case, players learn to avoid play by creating elaborate scripts to mechanically deploy when presented with any challenge. In OSR/etc. games, this sort of script may manifest as something like: always look at the ceiling, tap the floor with a ten foot pole, listen at the door. Disconnected from any context or cost, such scripts represent rote mechanization rather than adaptive learning. Players indicate by such behavior a way that their own motivational architecture is to some degree incompatible with or in tension with the game mechanisms or the particular campaign instance.

In the adaptation case, players learn how to navigate challenges by developing skills, along with the contextual knowledge of when to use the skills, and in so doing increase competence. This allows a player to face more complex challenges that incorporate, but move beyond, the existing skill. A simple example trajectory of several iterations might be fighting one troll successfully (to learn troll weaknesses), then fighting many trolls, then tricking other opponents without access to troll weaknesses into fighting trolls, and so forth. Ideally, the player would learn such details through play rather than outside of play by memorizing facts from an official rulebook.

Dark Souls, being a computer game, might be a purer example of this dynamic compared to a tabletop roleplaying game, since options are more constrained, but the template applies to some kinds of successful tabletop roleplaying games. The various versions of Dark Souls, and specific challenges within each, embody this ideal design to greater or lesser degrees; sometimes the game misses the mark. Though Dark Souls rewards certain kinds of creativity when approaching challenges, it has a basic combative frame which limits the learning potential. Additionally, sometimes the challenges degenerate into tedium—such as some long approaches from bonfires to bosses which require the player to pay a relatively boring tax to attempt a previously failed challenge again. But the abstraction is still clear enough to be a useful exemplar. (Post ends with 112 second video fighting The Lost Sinner in Dark Souls 2.)

Fighting the Lost Sinner

(Videos are personal play recordings, all Dark Souls 2I apologize for inflicting my poor technique on the viewer.)

Ethos of Play

DistemperedGus (of All Dead Generations) recently posted a series of Twitter threads on alignment, reaction rolls, morale, asymmetric encounters, and faction intrigue, all classic rules subsystems and approaches that he argues contribute to a particular classic “ethos” of play.

Because people talking about classic tabletop roleplaying games have become balkanized over various social media platforms, and Twitter is a hellscape, and I may want to link or refer to this collection of threads in the future, I am spotlighting them here. I also used Thread Reader App to create thread pages so that the threads can be read in a more bloglike format, for those that so desire:

Dark Souls 2 Rat King Covenant

It is probably worth noting, since this is the Internet, that my spotlight means “useful and worth reading” rather than that I agree with all threads on all points and in all particulars. For example, I would say that alignment as adventurer allegiance (rather than adventurer moral commitment) can function quite apart from moral essentialism, to say nothing of less savory interpretations. Law and Chaos as depicted in OD&D (and the refined “Basic” rulesets) is fuzzy in this regard, easily pushed in either direction. To be more explicit in notion, consider using alignment categories such as Unseelie, Neutral, Seelie, or Rebel Alliance, Neutral, Galactic Empire rather than Chaos, Neutral, Law (or, God help us all, the baroque murk that is the AD&D 3×3 matrix).


In case you want to create similar thread pages using Thread Reader App, here is how to do so A) without cluttering up someone else’s thread and B) without cluttering up your own timeline.

  1. Quote-retweet the thread in question with only the text:
    @threadreaderapp unroll
  2. Wait for the @ reply from @threadreaderapp (which in my experience takes a few seconds)
  3. Save the URL provided in this reply (which you could also derive from the original Twitter thread URL based on the tweet ID)
  4. Delete your quote-tweet that was originally addressed to @threadreaderapp
  5. Now the unrolled thread page persists for future reference

(You may need to follow @threadreaderapp first as well, but I am unsure.)

You can also easily print the unrolled thread pages to PDF, perhaps with the help of extensions to exclude distracting images, and so forth.

Dark Souls 2 Rat King: Rejoice!

(All post images are personal screen shots.)

Endgame Mirages

Panel from Berserk volume 12

Rules Cyclopedia and BECMI D&D provide rules for advancement up to level 36, with guidelines that adventurers should gain one level every five adventures (Rules Cyclopedia, page 129). I generally take “an adventure” to entail multiple game sessions, but even if you complete one adventure every session, assuming no setbacks such as adventurer death or level drain, and play once per week, a group must play for almost 3.5 years to reach level 361. It seems reasonable to assume that few actual campaigns have followed this procedurally proposed trajectory. This is an extreme, but other TSR rulesets, such as B/X or AD&D, seem to also imply an implausible level of commitment for most people playing most campaigns in most situations. One interpretation of this fact is that the rules are flawed, and it would be better to make endgame rules that people will, in fact, actually play. But what if the main function of late game rules material in TSR D&D, and descendants, is more to entice players into longer games?

A design trend exists around more focused games, which values explicit and transparent description of both rules and intent. According to this sort of evaluative criteria, the late game TSR D&D rules are ineffective, and perhaps even misleading or disingenuous. They promised me a castle, and all I got was this lousy longsword +2! However, there is no inherent reason that the most effective rule, functionally, must articulate its intent and function, or even that the designer must understand the likely function. Surely there are exceptions, but in general focused games tend toward one-shot, mini-series, or shorter campaigns. It seems possible that the lack of enticing phantasm in such designs may partly explain this difference.

Goals are only motivating prior to being reached. Following goal accomplishment, it is on to the next goal. Perhaps the TSR endgame is a form of ultimate imagined goal that works exactly because it is unlikely to be obtained. Lack of complete consummation does come with some drawbacks, such as the anecdotal observation that campaigns often end, following Eliot, not with a bang, but a whimper. As the duration of a campaign increases, an anticlimactic ending becomes more likely, even if players do maintain interest and attention, as changes in life circumstances will implacably conspire against the campaign of unusual ambition’s persistence. Whether a longer, complex campaign, often lacking closure, or a shorter, more contained campaign is better seems like a matter of taste, but either way having rules that players almost never use could still shape gameplay in substantial ways. This is another example showing how taking a text at face value may be a poor, or at least incomplete, guide to game functionality or game meaning.


1. A fighter requires approximately 3.4 million XP to reach level 36. A magic-user requires approximately 4.3 million XP to reach level 36.